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FCC votes to look at 'innovation' in wireless industry

The unanimous vote, which was expected, is a step that could lead to more regulation, including a curb on exclusive deals like the one between Apple and AT&T.

The Federal Communications Commission decided unanimously on Thursday to review the state of "innovation" in the wireless industry, a move that could lead to greater regulation of carriers and government intervention in disputes such as one that recently erupted over Google Voice and the Apple App Store.

All five FCC commissioners, including the two Republicans, voted to approve a pair of investigations into the wireless industry. One will look broadly at the state of competition and innovation, and the other, as CNET News reported last week, will evaluate whether truth-in-billing rules ensure subscribers know what they're paying for on their monthly phone bills.

Thursday's vote represents only a small first step toward more federal rules. While not all formal inquiries result in new regulations, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski did stress that his agency should be "relentless" in its pursuit of wireless innovation. CTIA, the organization which represents the big wireless operators in the U.S., has said that the industry is very competitive and innovative.

One possibility is that the FCC could force mobile providers to sell subsidy-free phones, which a Democratic bill introduced last year would have required. Another is ending exclusive deals between carriers and handset makers, which would target deals such as the one Apple made with AT&T.

The FCC has intervened in Google's so-far unsuccessful attempt to include its Google Voice application in the App Store. Last week, AT&T told the agency that it was not involved in the Google Voice decision; Apple claims a decision is still pending.

CNET News has posted a redacted version of Google's reply to the FCC, which doesn't explain why its application has not been approved.

If AT&T was not involved in the decision, the FCC may not have the legal authority to intervene. As a federal appeals court in Washington made clear in the broadcast flag case, the agency's authority does not usually extend to computer hardware, at least in cases that Congress has not explicitly authorized.